Some folks want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Others want to climb any mountain over 14,000 feet. Others — the ones who have a hankering for water-based activities — want to traverse the Great Loop. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, you can get on a boat and travel eastern North America by contiguous waterways. The Great Loop offers over 6,000 miles of scenic cruising that can be taken in all at once or in portions.
The Great Loop Legs
A seasonal map on the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) site provides users with a way to visualize how to travel the Great Loop and still manage to avoid most weather extremes. By traversing the north in the summer, the central U.S. rivers or the eastern seaboard in the fall or spring, and Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in the winter, you can sidestep snow or hurricane weather.
While the route is contiguous, boaters sometimes take side trips or travel the route in legs. The following descriptions, including mileage, show that adventures can come in small or large packages along this route. We’ll start in Florida and head north in this example, as many “Loopers” like to travel the Loop counterclockwise to take advantage of downstream currents on the inland rivers from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico:
- Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway: From where the Lake Okeechobee Waterway ends on Florida’s east coast, it’s a 1,266-mile journey up the eastern seaboard. This journey ends at the Hudson River.
- The Hudson River: From the eastern seaboard, take this historic river to the Erie Canal. This trip is 134 miles.
- New York State Canal System: This system includes the Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, Champlain Canal, and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. While you may want to do them all, the Erie Canal alone is 338 miles. Many Loopers take the Hudson River to Lake Ontario via the Erie and Oswego Canals, crossing from Oswego to Kingston, Ontario through a variety of courses that can take one day or several days, depending upon the urge for sightseeing. From Kingston, it is west to Trenton to enter the Trent-Severn Waterway.
- The Rideau Waterway: This alternate waterway links Ottawa to Kingston on Lake Ontario, and offers a Canadian route along the Great Loop. Boaters must abide by Canadian customs and rules and regulations for Canadian boating on this 125-mile leg.
- Trent-Severn Waterway: This route crosses through the Trenton River, Kawartha Lakes, Lake Simcoe and the Severn River for approximately 240 miles.
- The Great Lakes: Loopers often vary their routes along the Great Lakes. One tradition includes a direct cruise down the western shore of Lake Michigan en route to Chicago. Others take a more circuitous route, spending time along the shores. For reference: Lake Erie is 241 miles long and 57 miles wide at its widest point; Lake St. Clair is 26 miles long and 24 miles wide; Lake Huron is 206 miles long and 183 miles wide; Lake Michigan is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide.
- The Illinois River: This 334 mile waterway is the connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
- The Mississippi River from Grafton to the Gulf of Mexico is 1,172 statue miles; however, some boaters may take an alternate route by the Ohio River and the Tennessee and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which reduces your voyage on the Mississippi to 218 miles.
- The Ohio River: The Great Loop distance on this route from Cairo, IL to the Tennessee River at Paducah, KY is only 46 miles. If you travel from Paducah to the Cumberland River (another 58 miles) and then on to Cincinnati, OH, you’re adding 509 miles.
- Cumberland River: The lower Cumberland from Nashville, TN to Smithland at the Ohio River is 192 miles.
- Tennessee River: From the Ohio River to the entrance of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is 215 miles. The full length of the Tennessee River from Paducah, KY to Knoxville, TN is 648 miles.
- Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway: From the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico is 234 miles.
- Lake Okeechobee Waterway: This is a 154-mile waterway that travels across the lower part of Florida’s peninsula, ending on Florida’s east coast.
Observations about Time and Money
Canals and some rivers operate lock systems, which can add time to a trip. For instance, the Tennessee River contains ten locks, and the Rideau Canal contains 45 locks from Ottawa to Kingston. Estimated time to traverse the 125 miles contained in that latter canal is from four to six days. So, if you’re in a hurry, you might choose another leg to travel other than one that contains locks and dams.
Although the AGLCA’s 4,000-strong membership consists of PWC owners to yacht owners, you might learn that the most common boat is one that you will feel comfortable living in for anywhere from a weekend to months on the water. Some Loopers choose 34-45 foot trawlers, because of the shallow draft and overall comfort.
Some boaters choose boats based on economics. In one instance, a couple who continues to travel the Great Loop provided a 2009 log [PDF] that described legs on their journey as well as their costs at that time. They were aboard a 26-ft Glacier Bay 2690 Catamaran, and they’ve taken various cruises on a 2000 Endeavour Cat. From their log and their budget examples, you might envision a way to take several cruises along the Great Loop with little financial stress.
AGLCA members have written books and often blog about their Great Loop adventures. The common themes are costs and time — how to keep costs low, and how to find more time. You can save time and money by contacting United Marine Underwriters about your boat insurance needs before you take your boat around the Great Loop. We offer the best rates from the best companies for the most complete boat insurance.